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SEC Conference Reset: The league gets even stronger in 2018-19

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE SEC LOOKS TO BUILD ON A GOOD 2017-18 SEASON: Much-maligned in recent years due to the underwhelming non-conference schedules and performances by some programs, the SEC has made strides. Good hires, with regards to both the conference office and schools picking new head coaches, and better scheduling practices paid dividends for the SEC last season as eight teams earned NCAA tournament bids and two others landed in the NIT. The ten combined postseason berths are the most for the SEC since the league expanded to 14 schools in 2013. And here’s the thing: the SEC should be even better in 2018-19.

In Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee the SEC boasts three teams that are in the Top 10 of many early rankings, and Mississippi State and LSU stand to be really good with the majority of their key contributors back. And in the case of LSU, the Tigers add a recruiting class that includes Nazreon Reid, Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams. The jokes about this conference and its basketball product died down substantially last season, and that should continue to be the case in 2018-19.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AS WE’VE COME TO EXPECT, KENTUCKY RELOADS: Kentucky, which won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16 last season, will have to account for the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel all made the decision to turn pro. Kentucky also lost Sacha Killeya-Jones, who after two seasons in Lexington transferred to NC State. Those are some key losses, especially Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox, but the expectation at this point is that Kentucky will be even better next season thanks to the combination of who returns and who joins the program.

After testing the NBA draft waters forward PJ Washington is back, as are fellow sophomores Quade Green and Nick Richards. Joining those returnees is one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, with point guard Immanuel Quickley, off-guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro and power forward E.J. Montgomery making up that talented quartet. It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is one of the schools reported to be making a run at Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, a first team all-Pac 12 performer who will be a major addition to whichever program he joins. Lastly, there’s the expectation that 2019 five-star guard Ashton Hagans will reclassify and join the program this summer.

THE NBA DRAFT PROCESS LARGELY WORKED OUT FOR THE SEC: While Kentucky lost some key contributors, as noted above PJ Washington did make the decision to return for his sophomore season. And he wasn’t the only SEC talent of note to do this. Auburn and Mississippi State had multiple key contributors withdraw from the draft, including guard Bryce Brown and center Austin Wiley (Auburn), and guards Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon (Mississippi State). It wasn’t all rosy for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers however, as leading scorer Mustapha Heron withdrew from the draft and then transferred to St. John’s in order to be closer to his ailing mother.

The loss of Heron aside, Auburn has enough talent to make a run at another SEC title after sharing the top spot in the regular season standings a season ago. And at Mississippi State, Ben Howland has his best team since arriving in Starkville as the top six scorers from a team that reached the Postseason NIT semifinals have all returned. Other programs that benefitted from players withdrawing from the draft include Tennessee (Admiral Schofield), LSU (Tremont Waters), Missouri (Jontay Porter) and Florida (Jalen Hudson). Having those players back in the mix will only make the SEC better in 2018-19.

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LSU IS POISED TO MAKE A BIG JUMP NATIONALLY: Will Wade’s first season at LSU was a step in the right direction, as the Tigers finished the year with an 18-15 record (8-10 SEC) and reached the second round of the Postseason NIT. Point guard Tremont Waters was one of the SEC’s best freshmen, fellow guard Skylar Mays took a step forward as a sophomore and forwards Duop Reath and Aaron Epps were both productive options in the front court.

LSU will have to account for the losses of Reath and Epps heading into 2018-19, and all Wade did on that front was land a highly-regarded recruiting class that includes two of the nation’s best front court prospects in Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. Add in LSU keeping five-star point guard and Baton Rouge native Ja’Vonte Smart home, and this is a team that’s has the talent needed to be a factor in the SEC title race and a player nationally as well. That being said the climb won’t be easy considering the programs ahead of LSU in the SEC pecking order, but the Tigers will be heard from.

WHO’S GONE?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, Kentucky : Of the four players to leave Kentucky early for the NBA Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox were the most productive, with Knox being a first team All-SEC performer and the league’s co-Freshman of the Year, and Gilgeous-Alexander being a second team All-SEC selection. Kentucky’s play improved when Gilgeous-Alexander took the reins as starting point guard, with his ability to see over defenses, get into the paint off the dribble and defensive work being the reasons why. As for Knox, while there were moments in which he settled he was Kentucky’s most skilled scorer. Those two won’t be easy to replace, but Kentucky has reloaded with a very good recruiting class. What will also be key: PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green all taking a step forward as sophomores.
  • Collin Sexton and Braxton Key, Alabama: Sexton shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors with the aforementioned Knox, averaging 19.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. While losing Sexton, a projected lottery pick, hurts it isn’t as if his being a one-and-done player wasn’t expected in Tuscaloosa. To that point the Crimson Tide welcome back the likes of guards John Petty, Herb Jones, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, and four-star freshman Jared Butler should factor into the team’s plans as well. Avery Johnson will also have to account for the loss of Braxton Key, who transferred to Virginia after going through a sophomore season affected adversely by injury. Had the versatile Key been healthy for the entire season, it’s likely that Alabama would have been better than an 9-seed in the NCAA tournament (and avoided Villanova in the second round).
  • Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M: Billy Kennedy has some major holes to fill in the front court, as Williams, Davis and Hogg all decided to turn pro at season’s end. In the case of Williams, the buzz for him was such that he could have left after his freshman season and been a lottery pick as opposed to returning to College Station for the 2017-18 season. While Williams was the best defender and athlete in this trio Davis was the best low-post scoring option, and the 6-foot-9 Hogg was the best perimeter shooter. Texas A&M also lost Tony Trocha-Morelos from its front court rotation, and the personnel losses place even more pressure upon the likes of Isiah Jasey, Josh Nebo and recent addition Christian Mekowulu as the Aggies look to build on last season’s Sweet 16 run.
  • Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov, Florida: The good news for Mike White is that four of the top six scorers from last year’s team are back, including leading scorer Jalen Hudson. The bad news: he’ll have to account for the loss of starting point guard Chris Chiozza, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists per game last season. Also gone is Egor Koulechov, who in his lone season at Florida chipped in with 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. While those personnel losses hurt, the return of Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone and the additions of talented prospects such as Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson will help matters. Also, forward Isaiah Stokes is healthy after missing last season due to a torn ACL. Florida should once again be good, but how good will depend upon the consistency of KeVaughn Allen.
(Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • PJ Washington, Kentucky: Washington went through the NBA draft process, but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for his sophomore season. While productive as a freshman, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Washington did not have the consistent first-round grade that some players look for when making their draft decisions. His return is undoubtedly a positive for Kentucky, which will be able to pair solid returning contributors with a very good recruiting class. And that has been the formula for Kentucky’s most successful teams during John Calipari’s tenure as head coach.
  • Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner, Tennessee: Only one of these three, Schofield, went through the NBA draft process, and with all of them returning the Volunteers are expected to be even better in 2018-19. Williams was named SEC Player of the Year last season after averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Schofield and Turner (SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year) being double-digit scorers as well. In total Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title.
  • Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley, Auburn: Auburn, which shared that SEC title with Tennessee, received needed boosts on two fronts this spring. Brown, Harper and Wiley all decided to return for another season after testing the waters, with Wiley and Danjel Purifoy both being cleared after being sidelined last season due to the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball. Wiley and Purifoy will miss the first nine games of the 2018-19 season, but to have those two back in the rotation is big for Bruce Pearl. Auburn did lose leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s after withdrawing his name from the draft, but they have the talent needed to account for his departure.
  • Chris Silva, South Carolina: After sharing SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors with Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, Silva tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to return for his senior season. And that’s a huge deal for South Carolina, which will have to account for the losses of Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. While his defensive work is what got Silva an individual honor last season, it’s important to remember that he averaged 14.3 points per game as a junior.
(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHO’S COMING?

  • Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery, Kentucky: Kentucky’s recruiting class was mentioned above and with good reason, as it’s considered to be the second-best crop in the country behind Duke. Quickley and Montgomery are key figures, with the former immediately in the mix on the perimeter as Kentucky looks to account for the departures of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 forward will also see immediate minutes with P.J. Washington being the most noteworthy front court returnee and Nick Richards back as well.
  • Darius Garland, Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago, but the Commodores should put forth an improved product due to who arrives on campus. Among the newcomers is 6-foot-2 point guard Darius Garland, one of two five-star recruits brought in by Bryce Drew. Garland and sophomore Saben Lee should combine to form a talented and entertaining perimeter duo for the Commodores this season. As for the other five-star prospect, forward Simi Shittu, it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to contribute early on after a torn ACL ended his senior season in late January.
  • Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, LSU: Will Wade hit the jackpot last spring by landing Tremont Waters, and his second recruiting class at LSU ranks among the nation’s best. Wade left the state for two five-star prospects in Reid and Williams, who will be expected to contribute immediately as both Duop Reath and Aaron Epps are out of eligibility. The third five-star prospect in the class in point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, a key recruit in that Wade managed to keep the state’s top talent from leaving.
  • Andrew Nembhard, Florida: With the graduation of Chris Chiozza, Florida had a major hole to fill at point guard even with reserve Michael Okauru still in the fold. Enter Nembhard, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida. Nembhard’s size gives Florida a different dimension at the point than it had with Chiozza running the show, and his ability to get guys the ball in spots where they’re most effective should result in the freshman working well alongside Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Tom Crean, Georgia: After a nine-year run that produced two NCAA tournament bids the Mark Fox era came to an end in Athens, with Georgia hiring former Marquette and Indiana head coach Tom Crean to replace him. Crean spent last season working as a color commentator and studio analyst at ESPN, and the hope in Athens is that his accomplishments at prior head coaching stops foreshadow similar success at Georgia. Unfortunately for Crean he won’t have either Yante Maten or Juwan Parker to work with as both graduated, but three starters (William Jackson II, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds) and reserve Tyree Crump are among the returnees.
  • Kermit Davis, Ole Miss: Ole Miss bid farewell to Andy Kennedy, the program’s all-time wins leader, in mid-February as he announced his resignation. Stepping in to replace Kennedy was Kermit Davis, whose successful 16-year run at Middle Tennessee included 332 wins, six regular season conference titles (three Sun Belt, three Conference USA) and three NCAA tournament appearances. The biggest news for Davis this offseason was Terence Davis, Ole Miss’ leading scorer each of the last two seasons, deciding to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

Grant Williams, Tennessee (POY)
Bryce Brown, Auburn
Tremont Waters, LSU
Chris Silva, South Carolina
PJ Washington, Kentucky

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Tennessee: A season that began with the Volunteers being picked to finish 13th in the SEC ended with 26 wins, a share of the SEC regular season title and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. With much of that team back Rick Barnes may have a national contender on his hands, and the disappointing end to last season should motivate this experienced group.

2. Kentucky: The combination of returnees and talented newcomers make the Wildcats a player within the SEC and nationally, as we’ve come to expect. P.J. Washington and Quade Green will need to take on leadership roles while also competing for minutes alongside the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery (and likely Ashton Hagans as well). And can Nick Richards take a step forward after struggling with inconsistency last season? Kentucky will need him to.

3. Auburn: From a depth standpoint the Tigers don’t have much room for error, especially with the departure of Mustapha Heron. That being said this is a very good rotation to work with, as Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley will be back on the court after sitting out the first nine games of the 2018-19 season. Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore return, and transfer guards Samir Doughty (VCU) and Jamal Johnson (Memphis) will be eligible after sitting out last season.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return their top six scorers from a season ago, including guards Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman, making this Ben Howland’s best roster since he arrived in Starkville in 2015. As a result, look for the Bulldogs to be an SEC title contender next season.

5. Florida: While the losses of Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov aren’t to be overlooked, the return of Jalen Hudson means that the Gators should once again be a tough out in 2018-19. Adding Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson to the mix will help with the perimeter depth, and Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes are back in the front court. The key for Florida: KeVaughn Allen playing with aggression consistently.

6. LSU: After a good first season in Baton Rouge, Will Wade is set up for a more successful run in 2018-19. Of course there’s the addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, but Tremont Waters’ decision to return for his sophomore season is huge for LSU.

7. Alabama: Collin Sexton has moved on, but the Crimson Tide don’t lack for promising perimeter talents as Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Herb Jones and John Petty are all back for another season. In the front court Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens are back, with the former being Alabama’s leading returning scorer and rebounder.

8. Missouri: The Tigers lose Michael Porter Jr. and an all-SEC performer in Kassius Robertson, but the return of Jontay Porter means that Cuonzo Martin will have one of the SEC’s best front courts with Porter, Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon being the key figures. On the perimeter the Tigers will need freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson to hit the ground running, as Jordan Geist is their most productive returnee.

9. Vanderbilt: The Commodores did lose a lot of production from last season, but that senior-led group finished the year with an 11-20 record. There’s a renewed sense of optimism due to the recruiting class that Bryce Drew has added, and in sophomore guard Saben Lee he has another young “building block” to work with.

10. Arkansas: Losing Jaylen Barford, Darryl Macon and Anton Beard, three of the top four scorers from a team that won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament, does hurt. That being said Arkansas does boast one of the SEC’s better big men in rising sophomore Daniel Gafford, who made the decision to not even test the NBA draft waters.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost their top three front court contributors, as Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg all turned pro. That leaves guards T.J. Starks and Admon Gilder to shoulder much of the load in 2018-19, with transfers Josh Nebo (Saint Francis-PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) joining Isiah Jasey in the front court. Also, Texas A&M will need Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg to take a significant step forward if the team is to exceed this expectation.

12. Ole Miss: Kermit Davis won’t be working with a bare cupboard in his first season at Ole Miss. Terence Davis’ decision to return for his senior season means that the Rebels welcome back four of the team’s top scorers in 2017-18, with guards Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree and forward Bruce Stevens rounding out that quartet. And the late additions of K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson improve Ole Miss’ talent and depth in the front court.

13. South Carolina: The return of Chris Silva means that the Gamecocks return one of the SEC’s best defenders and overall players. But there’s still the need to account for the loss of two of the team’s top three scorers in Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. Returnees Justin Minaya and Hassani Gravett, and Georgetown transfer Tre Campbell will be among the other key contributors for Frank Martin in 2018-19.

14. Georgia: As noted above three starters are back from last season’s team as Tom Crean takes over. But with Yante Maten having graduated, who steps forward as Georgia’s top offensive option? They’ll likely have to get it done by committee, and in a league that’s gotten even better than it was last season that could make for some tough nights in Crean’s first season.

Jay Wright on double-duty with Villanova, USA Basketball

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Jay Wright immediately accepted a chance to be an assistant coach with USA Basketball for this year’s World Cup.

And then he checked his calendar.

Villanova students are headed back to school this week — while the Villanova men’s basketball coach will be halfway around the world for the next month or so. It has been, and will continue being, a major schedule challenge for Wright as he’s tasked with both helping USA Basketball win a gold medal while his players are on campus getting ready to start their seasons.

“It was a snap ‘yes.’ That’s the problem,” Wright said. “And then after you think about it, you’re like, ‘wow.’ Only then do you realize what you’re missing at home.”

To be clear, Wright said this is a problem only half-seriously.

Logistical matters weren’t going to keep him from being part of the staff of assistants that include Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce — all working under USA Basketball head men’s coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

“This is basketball heaven,” Wright said.

It’s not uncommon for college coaches like Wright to be part of the USA Basketball mix, which can collide with college calendars. At the most recent World Cup in 2014, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was one of the assistants — and that tournament ended in mid-September.

But at this tournament, which starts Aug. 31 in China with the Americans playing their first game against the Czech Republic a day later, Wright is the only college coach on the U.S. roster. Popovich, Kerr and Pierce all have some time before their ‘real’ teams start practice. Wright doesn’t have that luxury.

“He’s kind of doing double-duty right now,” Popovich said. “He’s keeping touch with his kids, and obviously doing a great job with the USA team. But he hasn’t forgotten about his Villanova guys.”

To make this work, Wright rearranged Villanova’s summer schedule, everything from player workouts to coaching meetings. He was able to do his usual gamut of recruiting, but his usual start-of-semester matters like meeting with parents and having newcomers get acclimated now will fall on his staff of assistants until he returns.

“You don’t say no to this,” Wright said.

The Americans needed a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles before arriving in Melbourne, Australia, where they resumed practice on Monday. They’ll play three games in Australia, the first of those coming on Thursday, before heading to China next week.

“Longest flight I’ve been on, but I’m happy to be here,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said.

Popovich believes in a style of coaching where everyone gets a chance to argue all parts of the game — a participatory approach, like he uses in San Antonio. Wright is primarily helping with the U.S. defensive schemes, but he also gets his opportunity to offer suggestions for the offensive plans. And he’s usually one of the last coaches still working on the floor after practice, running groups through shooting drills.

“We’re meeting in the morning, watching film, meeting with the team, practicing, going back, watching film, then watching film with the team,” Wright said. “And then we all go to dinner, but all we talk about at dinner is basketball.”

Wright guided Villanova to national championships in 2016 and 2018. Over the last four seasons, only Gonzaga has won more games than the Villanova — the Bulldogs have 130 wins, the Wildcats 129. And he has plenty of USA Basketball experience, like a gold medal as coach at the 2005 World University Games and a select team coach before the 2010 World Cup and 2016 Olympic runs by the senior national team.

Despite his experience, Wright notes that being around coaches like Popovich, Kerr and Pierce for umpteen hours a day has been a basketball education.

“It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Wright said. “We’re only a couple weeks in and I’ve already learned so much that I can bring back to our team. It’s incredible. Honestly, I feel like I’ve grown in two weeks as a coach, as a leader, more than I have in the last 10 years.”

Pounding Nails: Mick Cronin’s plan to recast UCLA from blue-blood to blue collar

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Four months into his tenure, the players that he inherited as the new UCLA head coach have yet to experience a vintage Mick Cronin blowup.

They’ve seen them, mind you.

They pull up the YouTube videos on their phones. It’s something that the staff and the players laugh about it. But watching Mt. Cronin erupt on Ted Valentine, J.P. Macura or whoever Rob is is very different than experiencing first-hand the wrath of a man who once missed a season because he, quite literally, blew a gasket.

“I can tell it’s there,” Chris Smith, a junior wing and one of the elder statesmen on this UCLA roster. “We’ve seen snippets of it in practice.”

“He will get fiery,” added freshman Jaime Jaquez, “but he’s being patient.”

And there’s a reason for that.

(Which I’ll get to.)

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After 13 seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati, after rebuilding the Bearcats from the ground up, Cronin left the city where he was born to become the tenth man in the last 44 years tasked with getting UCLA basketball back to where it was under John Wooden. The hire did not come with a ton of fanfare; in fact, Cronin was, at best, UCLA’s fourth choice. They wanted Jamie Dixon, but they couldn’t negotiate their way around his buyout. The same can be said for Rick Barnes, who publicly stated that he would be the head coach of the Bruins right now if the program had ponied up enough. UCLA chased John Calipari, and while it’s obvious that Coach Cal was using them to get a raise out of Kentucky, the Bruins believed there was a real chance they could get a deal done.

The fact that Cronin was not UCLA’s first choice had nothing to do with the level of success he achieved with the Bearcats. There are six programs in college basketball that have been to the NCAA tournament the past nine seasons. Cincinnati is one of them. Michigan State, Gonzaga, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the other five. Cronin is the only coach on that list that isn’t either in the Hall of Fame today or a lead pipe lock to be inducted in the very near future.

“A program like UCLA, winning is expected,” redshirt senior Prince Ali said. “He’s bringing that pedigree.”

Out of context, that level of consistency is remarkable.

In context, it’s even more impressive.

(I promise, I’m getting to the point.)

Remember, when Cronin took the Cincinnati job, it was at the height of the Big East’s powers in hoops. When he was hired, he had just two players on the roster, one of which was Connor Barwin, a walk-on recruited from the football team and a future NFL player. In his third season, the Big East had three No. 1 seeds in the tournament and a Final Four appearance. The first year Cincinnati reached the Big Dance, they were one of 11 schools from the conference to get a bid.

Making Cincinnati matter in a conference that was that strong was no easy task.

And that success was borne out of the one thing that, as it stands, is nowhere to be found in Westwood.

(We’ve arrived.)

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cronin developed a specific brand for his Cincinnati program. They were tough. They were physical. They were going to grind you down defensively. They were going to win the battle of the boards. They were going to play that open stance defense.

More importantly, the players on the roster knew what to expect. They had been recruited by the Cincinnati staff. Those relationships would often last six years, from the time Cronin could start recruiting them as juniors in high school through their senior season in college. They went to Cincinnati because they wanted to be coached the way Cronin coaches, because they thought they could thrive playing the way Cronin’s teams play. They picked Cincinnati for a reason.

More importantly, they knew everything that was expected of them. There was a familiarity built off of roster continuity that allowed the program, in a sense, to run itself.

Now? In LA?

“Everyone is new,” Cronin told me last week. “New to me and me to them.”

Cronin knows there is going to be a learning curve with this group. The players have to figure out what they are being asked to do. They have to learn an entirely new terminology. They have to learn Cronin’s teaching style while he has to figure out the best way to get through to them. As he put it, “listening is overrated. It’s listen, learn and apply. The way [my players] learn and apply is going to determine our rate of improvement,” and it’s his job to figure out the best way for them to learn, and the easiest way for them to apply.

And then there is the elephant in the room. The players have to be reprogrammed to play a style that hasn’t been prevalent in Pauley Pavilion for at least a decade.

Cronin wouldn’t comment on what UCLA was before he arrived – “I cannot speak to anything that’s happened here prior because I wasn’t here.” – but I certainly can.

During his nine year NCAA tournament run, the Bearcats were, on average, ranked 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The only season in which they ranked outside the top 22 in defensive efficiency was last year, when they “only” ranked 28th. UCLA, on the other hand, has ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s defensive ratings for three of the last four years. They haven’t finished in the top 30 since 2008, when Ben Howland was still getting the Bruins to Final Fours.

Put another way, Cronin is not only the new coach walking in the door, he’s the guy asking a roster full of players to play a way they’ve never been asked to play before.

That takes time.

And if he comes at them screaming like a madman every time they make a mistake, he’ll lose them.

He knows that.

“Being a college basketball coach is like being a starting pitcher,” Cronin said. “You have to change pitches. You’re pitching the whole game. You can’t throw fastballs every day.”

“You can’t get after people if they don’t believe or trust what you’re doing is real,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has been with Cronin for a decade, and that as much as anything else has been the focus of the first four months of the Cronin Era.

Cronin has taken a fairly unusual approach. There haven’t been team trips to the bowling alley. He hasn’t taken UCLA on any wilderness retreats or hired any Navy SEALS to come in and grind his players to a pulp with 5:30 a.m. workouts.

“I believe guys need to have a life and when it’s time to work, you work,” Cronin said. “I’m not into the corny stuff.”

I asked him to elaborate on that.

Prince Ali (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

“Showing up to your kid’s game is not being a parent. Taking your guys bowling is not being a coach or developing bonds,” he said. “After practice, the guys all go around saying ‘good work today,’ but during practice they make faces when a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t throw them the ball. Anyone can walk around saying good job, but what about when we’re competing?

“College basketball is 80 percent culture and how hard you compete. Do you care for each other? How do you interact? As a coach, you have to make it mandatory to play unselfish, play for each other and treat each other right.

“I can get after you as a coach. You don’t need to get on his ass because I will do that. You need to lift him up. My line is simple: ‘Your job is to worry about the team and helping each other. My job is to worry about you.'”

“I’ve felt the switch in culture. Everyone knows the whole idea is intensity and passion,” Smith said. “I’ve felt his presence in the gym, in practice. We’re going 100 percent in every drill. I can already see what the difference is going to be.”

“It’s great so far because there’s no stat sheet yet,” Cronin added with a chuckle.

UCLA lost their three leading scorers from last season in Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Moses Brown, but there is more than enough talent on this roster for Cronin to get to the 10th straight NCAA tournament. Ali was a top 30 prospect nationally coming out of high school. There are three four-star recruits returning on the wing – Smith, Jules Bernard and David Singleton – and two coming back to school in the frontcourt. Jaquez is a local kid and a freshman that made his debut playing for the Mexican national team this summer, and both Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal will be able to play this year after missing their freshman seasons.

Put another way, the problem with the UCLA program the last few years hasn’t been talent. In fact, the Bruins are deep enough that Cronin is actually concerned about making sure he finds enough minutes for everyone that deserves minutes.

The problem last season was simple, really. There was a lack of desire to play defense, there were too many guys playing for their draft stock instead of their teammates and there was a coaching staff that didn’t – or couldn’t – hold players accountable; Steve Alford was fired on Dec. 31st, and interim head coach Murry Bartow was nothing more than a substitute teacher.

Changing that mindset, slowly but surely, has been Cronin’s mission, and he knows that the process is far from complete.

“When you start to build a house, it’s a bunch of boards and nail,” he said. “You have to start pounding nails. You can’t look at it as a bunch of wood and a bunch of nails. You have to get up every day and start pounding nails, and eventually, you have a house.”

College Basketball 2019-2020 Preseason Top 25

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There is so much that is going to happen between now and the time that next season starts that it almost seems foolish to publish a preseason top 25 today.

But we’re doing it anyway!

A couple of notes: Who is going to head to the NBA is very much in the air right now. There are still a number of freshmen that have yet to announce where they are playing their college ball. The transfer market has barely heated up. For decisions that are up in the air, you’ll see an asterisk next to their name. We’re making predictions on what certain players will do and ranking based off of them. 

So with all that said, here is the preseason top 25.

1. MICHIGAN STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward
  • WHO’S BACK: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman

2. KENTUCKY

  • WHO’S GONE: P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Reid Travis
  • WHO’S BACK: E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickly, Nick Richards
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kahlil Whitney, Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontaie Allen, Nate Sestina
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, E.J. Montgomery

3. DUKE

  • WHO’S GONE: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
  • WHO’S BACK: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey

4. KANSAS

  • WHO’S GONE: Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quintin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Mitch Lightfoot, David McCormack
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Moss, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Isaac McBride, Christian Braun
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Devon Dotson, Isaiah Moss, Ochai Agbaji, Silvio De Sousa, Udoka Azubuike

5. VILLANOVA

  • WHO’S GONE: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly
  • WHO’S BACK: Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider, Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree, Brandon Slater
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Collin Gillespie, Bryan Antoine, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

6. LOUISVILLE

  • WHO’S GONE: Christen Cunningham, Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steve Enoch, Malik Williams, Darius Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Samuell Williamson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry, Fresh Kimble, David Johnson, Aidan Igiehom, Quinn Slazinski
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Fresh Kimble, Samuell Williamson, Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora, Malik Williams

7. MARYLAND

  • WHO’S GONE: Bruno Fernando
  • WHO’S BACK: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Darryl Morsell
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Chol Marial, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Donta Scott
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Jalen Smith

8. VIRGINIA

  • WHO’S GONE: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jack Salt
  • WHO’S BACK: Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff

9. TEXAS TECH

  • WHO’S GONE: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Khavon Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Chris Beard, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew, Andrei Savrasov
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jahmius Ramsey, Chris Clarke, T.J. Holyfield, Kevin McCullar, Russel Tchewa, Terrence Shannon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jahmius Ramsey, Davide Moretti, Deshawn Corprew, T.J. Holyfield, Chris Clarke

10. FLORIDA

  • WHO’S GONE: KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, DeAundre Ballard
  • WHO’S BACK: Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Dontay Bassett, Isaiah Stokes
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr.

11. GONZAGA

  • WHO’S GONE: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
  • WHO’S BACK: Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Admon Gilder, Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo, Ryan Woolridge, Brock Ravet, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zahkarov
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev

12. SETON HALL

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Nzei
  • WHO’S BACK: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Tyrese Samuel
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu

13. NORTH CAROLINA

  • WHO’S GONE: Coby White, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Jeremiah Francis, Anthony Harris, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cole Anthony, Leaky Black, Brandon Robinson, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks

14. UTAH STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Quinn Taylor
  • WHO’S BACK: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Diogo Brito, Abel Porter, Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta

15. OREGON

  • WHO’S GONE: Paul White, Louis King, Ehab Amin, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol, Victor Bailey
  • WHO’S BACK: Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro
  • WHO’S COMING IN: N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Addison Patterson, Chris Duarte, Lok Wur, Chandler Lawson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Shakur Juiston

16. ARIZONA

  • WHO’S GONE: Justin Coleman, Ryan Luther, Brandon Randolph
  • WHO’S BACK: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Max Hazzard, Terry Armstrong, Christian Koloko, Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Max Hazzard, Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Ira Lee, Chase Jeter

17. SAINT MARY’S

  • WHO’S GONE: Jordan Hunter
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan Ford, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts, Jock Perry

18. XAVIER

  • WHO’S GONE: Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, Elias Harden
  • WHO’S BACK: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kyky Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Zach Freemantle, Jason Carter, Daniel Ramsey, Dieonte Miles
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Jason Carter, Tyrique Jones

19. LSU

  • WHO’S GONE: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams
  • WHO’S BACK: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Trendon Watford, James Bishop
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor, Trendon Watford, Emmitt Williams

20. BAYLOR

  • WHO’S GONE: King McClure, Makai Mason, Jake Lindsey
  • WHO’S BACK: Tristan Clark, Mario Kegler, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Matthew Mayer
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, Mark Vital, Mario Kegler, Tristan Clark

21. MEMPHIS

  • WHO’S GONE: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, Antwann Jones Jr.
  • WHO’S BACK: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
  • WHO’S COMING IN: James Wiseman, D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge, Damian Baugh, Lance Thomas, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyler Harris, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, James Wiseman

22. AUBURN

  • WHO’S GONE: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer, Chuma Okeke
  • WHO’S BACK: Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Isaac Okoro, Anfernee McLemore

23. TENNESSEE

  • WHO’S GONE: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Derrick Walker Jr, D.J. Burns
  • WHO’S BACK: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Yves Pons., John Fulkerson, Jalen Johnson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Josiah James, Drew Pember, Olivier Nkamoua, Davonte Gaines
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson

24. VCU

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Gilmore
  • WHO’S BACK: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’L Simms, P.J. Byrd, Malik Crawford
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jarren McAlister
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Vince Williams, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva

25. OHIO STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Kyle Young, Justin Aherns, Musa Jallow, Jaedon LeDee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddel, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Walker
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson

JUST MISSED

DAVIDSON

  • WHO’S GONE: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
  • WHO’S BACK: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Luka Brajkovic

CREIGHTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Froling, Kaleb Joseph, Connor Cashaw
  • WHO’S BACK: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Marcus Zegarowski
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Shereef Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson

WASHINGTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green
  • WHO’S BACK: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins, Jamal Bey
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Quade Green, Marcus Tsohonis, RaeQuan Battle
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quade Green, Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart

COLORADO

  • WHO’S GONE: Namon Wright
  • WHO’S BACK: McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, Daylen Kountz
  • WHO’S COMING IN: No one
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: McKinley Wright IV, Shane Gatling, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert

MARQUETTE

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Hauser, Joey Hauser, Joseph Chartouny
  • WHO’S BACK: Markus Howard, Theo John, Sacar Anim, Ed Morrow, Jamal Cain
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Koby McEwen, Symir Torrence, Jayce Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Markus Howard, Koby McEwen, Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, Theo John

Ex-Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves acquitted in sex assault case

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FLINT, Mich. — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves Tuesday on charges alleging he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.

The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.

Evidence against Cleaves included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.

Cleaves did not testify. One of his attorneys, Frank Manley, said Cleaves had consensual sex with the woman who was in the motel room “of her own free will” after a charity golf tournament and visit to a bar. Cleaves’ attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

The 41-year-old Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

Cleaves has long denied the allegations, saying in a March 2016 tweet that he was “innocent and the allegations are without merit.”

The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.

But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.

Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.

And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”

Mick Cronin lands first five-star recruit at UCLA

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Less than 24 hours after cutting his list to five schools, five-star point guard Daishen Nix committed to UCLA.

Nix is a 6-foot-5 point guard from Alaska that’s currently playing his high school ball in Las Vegas. He’s known for his court vision and elite basketball IQ with a developing jumper and a feel for the game that cannot be taught. He ranks as a top 15 prospect, according to 247 Sports.

He was Mick Cronin’s top target at the point guard spot, and Cronin landed him. That’s notable, because one of the concerns that people had about UCLA’s decision to hire Cronin was whether or not a coach known for his toughness, his intensity and his team’s propensity for being defense first would adjust to playing at California’s flagship program, where tempo is a must and defense has been, for the last half-decade, optional.

And while it remains to be seen how the team and program will adjust to his coaching style – I will have a story coming on that later this week – at the very least, Cronin has proven that he can dip his toe in the west coast recruiting waters and get a player that he prioritized.